Elisha, “Children”, and Bears? Part 1

Q. How can Elisha curse the children to be torn up by bears just for laughing at him? How can he be so cruel? How can God allow this?

A. The incident you referred to is in 2 Kings 2:23-24:

  • 23 Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” 
  • 24 When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.

Skeptics have used this passage to attack the Bible, charging God or His prophet for killing innocent children for such an insignificant joke, which is beneath what even ordinary people would do. The problem is that they misunderstood the original language of the Bible and the context. Let’s unravel this by looking at W6: Who, Where, When, What, Why and How. Every detail provides clues to interpreting this passage.

First, who are these “little children”? The word “children” in the KJV actually translates two different Hebrew words:

  • Na’ar in v23: which could mean a boy, lad, youth, or servant, and
  • Yeled in v24: which could mean a child, boy, youth, or son or offspring.

Na’ar is sometimes used for a young man e.g.

  • Jacob in Gen 34:19,
  • Joseph in Gen 41:12 (cf. 37:2),
  • Solomon (1 Kings 3:7),
  • Jeremiah (Jer 1:6-7).

In other places, it denotes the function of servant or soldier and has nothing to do with age e.g.

  • Joshua servant of Moses (Ex 33:11),
  • Gehazi servant of Elisha (2 Kings 4:12, 5:20, 8:4),
  • Soldiers (1 Kings 20:15, 17, 19).

Similarly yeled sometimes denote a young man e.g.

  • Gen 4:23, Eccl 4:13,
  • Rehoboam’s friends (1 Kings 12:8).

So the “children” may not be “kids” as some have assumed, but older youths or young men, as translated in some contemporary versions e.g.

  • Common English Bible: Elisha went up from there to Bethel. As he was going up the road, some young people came out of the city. They mocked him: “Get going, Baldy! Get going, Baldy!” Turning around, Elisha looked at them and cursed them in the Lord’s name. Then two bears came out of the woods and mangled forty-two of the youths.
  • New King James Version: Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” So he turned around and looked at them and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the Lord. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.
  • World English Bible: He went up from there to Bethel. As he was going up by the way, some youths came out of the city and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldy! Go up, you baldy!” He looked behind him and saw them and cursed them in Yahweh’s name. Then two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of those youths.
  • See also International Standard Version, Living Bible, etc.

Second, where do the young men come from? Bethel. Bethel is where Jeroboam set up golden calves for Israelites to worship so they won’t offer sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem:

  • 1 Kings 12:28-29 So the king consulted and made two golden calves, and he said to them, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 29 He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.
  • 2 Kings 10:29 However, as for the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin, from these Jehu did not depart, even the golden calves that were at Bethel and that were at Dan.

So Bethel was a center for idolatry which Jeroboam used to lead Israel to sin.

(To be continued)

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